ROME—On Wednesday morning, Pope Francis stood in the window of the apostolic palace looking over St. Peter’s Square and blessed the crowds that had gathered for the Catholic celebration of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven. He talked about saints and heaven and sent his prayers to the victims of the bridge collapse in the northern Italian city of Genoa the day before.
But the pope didn’t mention the latest horrific news revealed about his church: that a Pennsylvania grand jury had just handed down a damning 1,356-page account of rampant abuse that involved 1,000 kids, 300 priests, and 70 years of silence. “We, the members of this grand jury, need you to hear this,” the report began. But there was no sign Wednesday that Pope Francis was listening. He offered no prayer for the victims of his own churchmen who have been suffocated under a veil of complicity and shame for decades.
The Pennsylvania report outlines decades of violent abuse against both boys and girls. When some of those girls got pregnant by their priests, they were forced to have abortions. Alcohol was often used to prime the victims who were humiliated and made to feel guilty for their predators’ sins.
One little boy named George was even made to act out the Crucifixion in the nude while priests took Polaroid pictures they later passed around in the era before digital photographs and online pedo-pornography.
“The group of priests used whips, violence, and sadism in raping their victims,” the report states. Truly, the Marquis de Sade would have felt right at home among Pennsylvania’s Catholic priests.
The victims were given gold crosses to wear,i which became a sort of scarlet letter by which other offending priests could identify boys who had already been used and abused.
The coverup of this sort of rampant sexual cruelty involving children is by now sadly familiar, as is the strategy of Rome refusing to acknowledge such accusations until far too late. The response to this report, like so many others before it, is also sadly familiar. A spokesperson for the Vatican reached Wednesday morning said it “has no comment at the moment” before tersely hanging up.
The Pennsylvania report is, of course, not the first damning depiction of widespread sexual abuse in the U.S. church. The Academy Award-winning film Spotlight chronicled similar allegations of cover ups, and there have been books and documentaries that have been at least as accusatory.
But one thing that makes this report stand out is that it cuts close to one of the most important figures in the American Catholic Church.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of the Washington D.C. diocese, is a man many thought could one day be pope. But he is named in the grand jury report specifically for his role moving some of the 300 pervert priests to new parishes when he was a bishop in Pittsburgh from 1998 to 2006. It notes that nearly 100 of the priests in the grand jury report were in Pittsburgh during Wuerl’s tenure there.
Although Wuerl is not specifically accused of abusing children, and the report does point out occasions when he stopped some abusive priests, there are far more allegations about his tendency to relocate predatory priests. If true, that means he enabled those clerics to continue to seek out and sexually assault innocent children.
Wuerl, who is also a close friend of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who resigned last month after allegations that he had abused minors and harassed seminarians, responded to the Pennsylvania report with unusual candor.
“While I understand this report may be critical of some of my actions, I believe the report confirms that I acted with diligence, with concern for the victims and to prevent future acts of abuse,” he posted on a special page called The Wuerl Record on the D.C. diocese website. “I sincerely hope that a just assessment of my actions, past and present, and my continuing commitment to the protection of children will dispel any notions otherwise made by this report.”
Thomas Groome, a professor of theology and religious education at Boston College, says the new allegations are appalling, but hopes this time change and transparency will follow.
“Just when we thought we could not be shocked or scandalized any further, today’s headlines of hundreds of priests abusing thousands of children—in PA alone—just breaks the heart, and especially of every Catholic who cherishes their faith,” Groome, who is a former priest, told The Daily Beast in an email. “How could our institution and its leaders fall so far short in representing what we know to be the Gospel of Jesus Christ?”
Groome hopes that “perhaps such headlines and what they represent will bring us to address the two great questions that remain. Why did this happen and why was it allowed to continue happening? The first question pertains to the culture of priesthood, the second to the lack of accountability on the part of our leaders and lack of lay participation in the governance of the Catholic Church.”
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is the governing body of the American Catholic Church, issued its own statement on the matter, offering prayers “that all survivors of sexual abuse find healing, comfort and strength” but stopping short of calling the allegations crimes.
“The report of the Pennsylvania grand jury again illustrates the pain of those who have been victims of the crime of sexual abuse by individual members of our clergy, and by those who shielded abusers and so facilitated an evil that continued for years or even decades. We are grateful for the courage of the people who aided the investigation by sharing their personal stories of abuse. As a body of bishops, we are shamed by and sorry for the sins and omissions by Catholic priests and Catholic bishops,” the statement said.
"We are profoundly saddened each time we hear about the harm caused as a result of abuse, at the hands of a clergyman of any rank. The USCCB Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People and the office of the Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection will continue to offer avenues to healing for those who have been abused. We are committed to work in determined ways so that such abuse cannot happen.”
Marie Collins, a victim of clerical sexual abuse from Ireland who had been a member of Pope Francis’ Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors—and who resigned last year after three years on the commission over the pope’s “lack of action” to protect children—said the problem is a question of semantics.
She tweeted after the Pennsylvania report came out. “It’s not just America but the entire Catholic Church needs to examine itself,” she told The Daily Beast, reflecting a Twitter tirade she has been on since the report came out. “They need to examine the internal culture which allows an unholy attitude of ‘hear nothing,’ ‘see nothing,’ and ‘say nothing’ to thrive.”